State leaders of both parties worried aloud Sunday about the security of America’s election systems against possible cyberattacks ahead of this fall’s midterm elections, aware that Russian agents targeted more than 20 states little more a year ago, and the Trump administration has taken a mostly hands-off approach to the continued interference.
U.S. intelligence leaders report Russian hackers are already working to undermine this November’s elections, which will decide the balance of power in Congress and in statehouses across the nation.
“In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s scary,” Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, said. “The biggest concern is when you have a president and an administration that denies the problem and doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the problem, it’s hard to believe that they’re going to be offering any real solutions or funding to make our system more secure.”
Election security has been overshadowed by a near-constant string of chaos and controversy out of the White House over the last year. As most of the nation’s governors gathered in Washington for a weekend conference, issues like gun violence, Trump’s leadership and the economy dominated most hallway conversations. Yet non-partisan experts and both Democratic and Republican elected officials suggest there is no issue more critical to American democracy than the integrity of the nation’s elections, which are facing unprecedented cyberattacks.
The Trump administration has so far done little to help secure the mishmash of 10,000 local voting jurisdictions across the nation that mostly run on obsolete and imperfectly secured technology. Russian agents targeted election systems in 21 states ahead of the 2016 general election, the Department of Homeland Security says, and separately launched a social media blitz aimed at inflaming social tensions and sowing confusion.
The search for a solution has been shaped by partisan politics.
While Democratic governors lashed out at the Trump administration for ignoring the threat, some Republicans, such as Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin insisted the media are overstating the problem. Several other Republicans, however, were openly concerned about outside interference but declined to criticize the Trump administration’s inaction.
“There’s obviously nothing more important than protecting the mechanism of democracy, and they’ve shown that they can at least meddle if not directly influence,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who leads the Republican Governors Association, said of Russian hackers. “We’re paying attention to it.”
Earlier in the month, senior officials from the Department of Homeland Security participated in a series of “coordination meetings” with state and local election officials and private companies to discuss cybersecurity for the nation’s election infrastructure, the White House said last week. A Trump spokesman, however, declined to respond to the governors’ concerns when asked to comment Sunday.
Trump rarely mentions the Russian threat. The president has instead repeatedly condemned special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election meddling as “a witch hunt.”
Mueller’s team has charged 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies in a plot to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
“I do think hackers are a threat for the nation,” said Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican. “We’ve seen a lot of foreign influence trying to break into our election cycle.”
But Fallin, like several governors, downplayed the threat in her state. She noted that Oklahoma participated in the recent meetings with the Department of Homeland Security.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, said his state, which allows some voters to return ballots electronically, recently earned the top grade for election security — a B — in a national report released by the Center for American Progress.
“We’re Number 1 in the nation and we’re closest to Russia,” he said. “Our elections are in good shape.”
Few governors could detail what specific steps are being taken to strengthen election security when asked. Democrats in particular suggested that the Trump administration has done almost nothing.
“It’s one of the most, if not the most, immediate threats,” said Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. “So now we’ve been able to prove that Russia hacked. What’s our response? Does our country have a response?”
Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, another Democrat, likened Russia’s cyberattacks to Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Because of some infatuation with Vladimir Putin, the president of the United States refuses to recognize that we’re under attack. It’s like December 8, 1941, and Franklin Roosevelt getting up there and saying, ‘yesterday nothing happened.'” Inslee said. “That’s the situation we have right now, and it’s disturbing.”
AP writer Ken Thomas contributed to this report.